Visualizing 2021: Trends to Watch
from Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies, Africa Program, Energy Security and Climate Change Program, Global Health Program, and Managing Climate Risk

Visualizing 2021: Trends to Watch

CFR experts illustrate the trends to track in the coming years.

December 17, 2020 9:37 am (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

As a tumultuous 2020 comes to a close, four CFR experts use charts and maps to show important trends to watch in the years ahead.

Preparations for the Next Pandemic

The United States has the largest epidemic of COVID-19 in the world. While it accounts for just 4 percent of the global population, it has more than 20 percent of all cases. The projected health-related and other economic costs from the disease are staggering: more than $16 trillion. This figure dwarfs what the United States has spent trying to prepare for pandemics and other public health emergencies. The most generous accounting of federal spending on public health preparedness indicates the United States put in just under $100 billion over the last decade, with only a fraction going specifically to emerging infectious diseases.

Given both the considerable potential costs of a single-disease emergency and the increasing frequency with which significant epidemics and pandemics are occurring, national governments including the United States’ should increase their investments in preparedness so as to prevent similar, or potentially worse, losses in the future.

Jennifer Nuzzo is a senior fellow for global health.

The Costs of Climate Change 

The number of natural disasters that pummeled the United States made 2020 a record-breaking year. While wildfires scorched millions of acres in the west, so many powerful storms battered the Gulf and Atlantic coastlines that meteorologists had to turn to the Greek alphabet to name them. 

So-called billion-dollar disaster events—natural disasters that cause losses exceeding $1 billion in a single year—are on the rise in the United States. In the 1980s, the nation suffered an average of nearly three billion-dollar disasters per year, adjusted for inflation. In the past three years, the average has almost quintupled to 14.7. In 2020, the country experienced the most billion-dollar disaster events in a single year in its recorded history. 

Looming large is the influence of climate change, which is increasing both the number and severity of natural disasters. To manage the worsening toll of climate change, leaders at all levels of government and in the private sector must prepare for extreme weather. Every dollar spent on preparation saves six dollars in damages. In addition, to avoid the worst climate disasters, the nation must cut its greenhouse gas emissions. 

Alice C. Hill is the David M. Rubenstein senior fellow for energy and the environment.

The Future of Medical Trade

As governments rushed to respond to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, their attention quickly turned to the more than $2 trillion in annual trade in medical goods­­. All were forced to confront the extent to which they are dependent on global supply chains for personal protective equipment (PPE), medicines, and other essential materials.

Many grew concerned about their overreliance on certain links in the chain, particularly in China, and responded by reexamining their tariffs on medical supplies, imposing export bans to keep critical goods at home, and pushing domestic firms to ramp up production of important supplies. Group of Twenty (G20) leaders pledged to make trade measures in response to the pandemic “targeted, proportionate, transparent and temporary.”

However, countries’ continued access to the life-saving medicines and vaccines needed to combat this virus will depend on the steady operation of global supply chains. Such operations depend on countries lowering barriers to imports and refraining from restrictions on exports.

Jennifer A. Hillman is a senior fellow for trade and international political economy.

Africa’s Aging Leaders

Africa’s leadership is not reflective of African society at large: the world’s youngest region is led by some of the world’s oldest officials. As young Africans assert themselves in civil society and the private sector, it is only a matter of time before they obtain more representation at the highest levels of government. That could bring with it a significant change in political cultures and priorities. Youthful leaders from growing urban areas will likely need to ground their political appeal in delivering government services and advancing reforms. This would help distinguish them from the aging class of existing leaders and dominant political parties that rely on past achievements to claim legitimacy. As the next generation of leaders vies for authority, entrenched interests will attempt to assimilate them into existing power structures; a failure to bring them into the fold could heighten political tensions in the next few years.

Michelle D. Gavin is senior fellow for Africa Studies.

Will Merrow created the graphics for this article.

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